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Recent years have seen a marked increase in the number of people affected by occupational burnout, with nearly one in five employees said to experience burnout symptoms at work. Despite its prevalence, however, the precise causes are still fiercely debated. A new joint research study led by UvA work and organisational psychologist Roy Sijbom has now found evidence showing a clear link between leaders’ pursuit of goals and a heightened risk of burnout among their employees. The researchers’ results were recently published in the Journal of Personality.

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Current research on the causes of burnout primarily focuses on individual-level characteristics of employees, such as their personalities and goals. However, this approach takes insufficient account of the external work environment, leading to an incomplete picture, says Sijbom. 'To counter this, we carried out research into one of the main influencing factors in employees’ work environment: their leaders. We hereby submitted both employees and their leaders to questionnaires to discover the extent to which the pursuit of certain goals by the latter leads to burnout among the former.'

Development versus competition

Leaders may pursue different goals in the execution of their work. On the one hand, they may strive for self-improvement and self-development ('mastery-approach' goals) or, alternatively, seek to outperform others ('performance-approach' goals). Sijbom: 'We investigated the relationship between both of these types of goals and the burnout rate among employees. What we found was that the greater the emphasis placed by leaders on improvement and development, the lower the burnout rate among their subordinates, irrespective of the employees’ own goals. With leaders who were focused on outperforming others (performance-approach goals), we saw the opposite effect – the pursuit of these goals was associated with an increase in the burnout rate among their subordinates, once again irrespective of the employees’ own objectives.'

The explanation is relatively simple, says Sijbom: 'In the workplace, leaders’ goal strivings provide important and dominant cues for their employees. The behaviour of supervisors who pursue performance-approach goals may make it more difficult for their subordinates to deal with setbacks because they are constantly pushed to compare themselves with others. This puts an additional strain on their mental resilience. Rather than helping to achieve the goal, such behaviour leads to additional stress, which may eventually result in a burnout.'

Ideal working environment

As a corrective, organisations could benefit from creating a work environment that emphasises mastery-approach goals over performance-approach goals, says Sijbom. Such an environment could be fostered by shifting the focus of reward and recognition systems to progress and effort and redefining success in terms of development and improvement. The explicit acceptance of mistakes as part of the learning process would be another feature of this working environment.

Publication details

R.B.L. Sijbom, J.W.B Lang, F. Anseel: 'Leaders' achievement goals predict employee burnout above and beyond employees' own achievement goals' in Journal of Personality, 5 September 2018.